Reflections on Death and Monuments

Daniel and I wandered in to Reading Frenzy today, and picked up a new book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris. It’s beautiful, macabre, interesting, and full of European history. I’ve wanted to see the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic for years. I knew about the catacombs in Paris and Rome. When I was working on my thesis last year, I stumbled across the Capuchin mummies, at the monastery of Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. I had no idea that so many ossuaries across Europe were preserved, and knew nothing about those in Cambodia, Ecuador and Peru. More than sixty sites are discussed in the book, with detailed photographs throughout and site locations mapped in the back of the book.

The relationship that the living have with the dead fascinates me. Americans, in my experience, fear death. Our history is short, we shy away from talking about the uncomfortable times in that history, and our culture values eternal youth. Death is uncomfortable; we don’t know how to mourn, and we don’t know how to deal with people who are mourning. I learned this early, but the reality of it is affirmed periodically. Today is the second anniversary of the death of a friend, Dante, and even I – who has spent time examining death and the cultural rituals surrounding death – don’t know what to say.

Memento mori tattoo on my chest.

Just over two years ago, I got my first tattoo. Part of it is a shaded heart in a decorative frame, tattooed on my chest above my left breast. The design was adapted from a piece of Victorian memento mori jewelry. I imagine it containing all my memories of the people I’ve known who have died, a constant memorial that acknowledges death and affirms life (my life, at least). I got it for my father, my grandmother, my cousin, my friend’s mother, and others. I remember when I found out that Dante had died. My hand when to my heart – my second heart, the new one needled into my skin. I remember thinking that I got it to remind me, but I hadn’t expected to add any more memories to it so soon after getting it.

In The Empire of Death, the author mentions how the living would visit the dead in the ossuaries. Families would bring flowers and periodically redress their dead loved ones in new clothes. In Hallstatt, Austria, the ossuary at the Chapel of St. Michael houses a collection of decorated skulls, where the names and death dates were recorded on the foreheads in elegant scripts (the most recent from the 1990’s). Some of them were made for more practical and far less sentimental reasons; one pile of bones was made because the local gentry wanted to reclaim the land of the dead for hunting.

I like the idea of a more hands-on relationship with death. Remembering our mortality (memento mori) does not seem bleak to me. The minutiae of life is more beautiful when one knows it is fleeting; gestures carry more meaning when they must end. Rituals that acknowledge death and help us find beauty in the suffering of loss are rituals that help us to live because they help us move through necessary experiences.

A lot of the imagery from Stories From the Stone House danced around these ideas, sometimes directly and sometimes less so. The print “She was blinded by her will,” was directly influenced by the Capuchin cemetery. The more recent print “Kmotřička Smrt” is about Death as Godmother (which is what the title generally translates as). It’s from a folk tale of the same title; I was enchanted by the picture of Death filling the role of a fairy godmother because it flies in the face of my cultural concept of the figure of Death as a merciless, scythe-weilding figure of doom.

Death is hard on the living. I like the idea of allowing death to come closer, to accept it into our lives. I think it helps dull the ache, though it’s certainly no cure. I also like the idea of Death as capable of mercy and kindness, because it is that version of Death I hope collects my loved ones, both passed and still living.

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